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Shining new light on the Isle of Iona

11 April 2012

International experts are gathering this week on Iona to discuss the history of the island and its globally-important collection of carved stones.

Historic Scotland and the Iona Community are hosting a research workshop from April 10th to 13th to add to our understanding of this highly significant religious site and the collection of intricately carved stones on display there.

The research will inform our planning of events in 2013 marking the 1450th anniversary of St Columba’s arrival in 563 AD.

Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs Fiona Hyslop said:

“The anniversary of the arrival in Iona of St Columba gives us an opportunity to celebrate an enduring symbol of Christian art in this Year of Creative Scotland, and identify what new research would help us to understand it better.

“In early medieval Europe, monasteries were the only centres of learning and artistic excellence. Iona was one of these, with extensive international contacts. Its enduring significance is illustrated by the presence of the wonderful collection of medieval sculpture which remains on the island. This research workshop will draw on a variety of expertise in order to improve our understanding of this iconic site’.

“It is hugely popular with visitors, some of whom continue the tradition of pilgrimage that began soon after the founding of a monastery by St Columba and his followers in 563 AD.”

The Iona Abbey, Nunnery and collection of carved stones and grave markers are in the care of Historic Scotland.

Peter Macdonald, Leader of the Iona Community, said:

“We’re pleased to host this conference with Historic Scotland as we seek to learn more about the faith and culture that shaped our nation - insights from the past which may inform us about the values we want to live by in Scotland today.”

The abbey church was restored at the beginning of the 20th century, whilst work on restoring the living accommodation began in 1938, following the foundation of the Iona Community. Today, the Iona Community continues the tradition of worship first established by St Columba 1450 years ago.

The monastery continued to flourish after Columba’s death in 597 and its fame was such that in the 8th century at least two Irish kings retired to spend their last days there. The magnificent gospel-book, the Book of Kells, is thought to have been created at Iona before being taken for safety to Kells in the early 9th century.

As well as the historic sites, Iona has a breath-taking landscape, cared for by islanders and the National Trust for Scotland, with beautiful beaches that inspired the Scottish Colourists like FCB Caddell and SJ Peploe.

Columcille (Irish, ‘Dove of the Church’) was better known by the Latin name Columba. He was born of royal lineage in Co Donegal and trained in the newly introduced monastic life from an early age.

The twin aspects of Columba’s life, austerity and power, are reflected in the sculpture that followed. Simple grave markers, perhaps of the type that stood beside Columba’s grave, can be contrasted with the mighty high crosses of the 8th century and the later grave slabs of the Lords of the Isles.

  • Contributors will cover these topics:
    • Mairi MacArthur – Traditions of Columba among people of Iona
    • Finbar McCormack – Columba and Iona: The Irish perspective
    • Cormac Bourke – Defining Sacred Space
    • Cathy Swift – Small churches and grave slabs of the Hebrides
    • Ewan Campbell – Artefactual evidence for the Columban Monastery
    • Adrian Maldonaldo – First millennium AD Iona
    • Ian Beuermann – The last ‘Viking’ sack of Iona
    • Oliver O’Grady – the Culdee Archaeology Project, Perthshire
    • Katherine Forsyth – Writing, carving, remembering: the form and function of Iona’s early medieval carved stones
    • David Caldwell – Medieval grave slabs and crosses
    • Tasha Gefreh – Electa ut sol: an iconographic programme of Iona
    • Sally Foster – Crafting stories from Iona’s early medieval stones
    • John Borland – Some comparable sculpture in Pictland, from west to east through the Perthshire Glens
    • Janet MacDonald – Iona’s lands in Argyll and the Hebrides
    • Rachel Moss  – Afterlife of medieval buildings
    • Ian Bradley – The Celtic revival movement 1880 – 1900
    • Derek Alexander – Recent archaeological and conservation work on the island by the NTS
    • Ian Fisher – The medieval architecture at Iona Abbey
    • Steve Driscoll –The Govan connection in the revival of Iona
    • Rosemary Power – The Iona Community and Celtic Spirituality
    • Peter Yeoman – Pilgrimage

If you would like to arrange an interview during the conference please contact Lesley Brown on 07920 768096 or

Notes for editors:

  • Historic Scotland is an executive agency of the Scottish Government charged with safeguarding the nation’s historic environment. The agency is fully accountable to Scottish Ministers and through them to the Scottish Parliament.

  • The Year of Creative Scotland began on January 1, 2012 and will spotlight and celebrate Scotland’s cultural and creative strengths on a world stage. Through a dynamic and exciting year-long programme of activity celebrating our world-class events, festivals, culture and heritage, the year puts Scotland’s culture and creativity in the international spotlight with a focus on cultural tourism and developing the events industry and creative sector in Scotland. More information about the programme can be found at:

  • The Year of Creative Scotland is a Scottish Government initiative led in partnership by EventScotland, VisitScotland, Creative Scotland and VOCAL. More information and resources to help businesses engage with Year of Creative Scotland are available at

                                                        Year of Creative Scotland 2012

For further information

Lesley Brown
Communications and Media Officer
Communications and Media
0131 668 8603 or 07920 768 096